Sunday 9 April 2017

Todd Blubaugh's Too Far Gone

It took me almost a month to slowly work my way through this complex piece of media.  I originally came across an excerpt from it in Bike Magazine and it was so moving that I immediately purchased it.  I'm generally not a fan of coffee table books.  I've always thought of them as flash over substance and a decoration for yuppies to strategically place in their perfect living rooms to impress guests.  It took some powerful writing in that excerpt to overpower my prejudice about this format, and I'm glad it did.

Writing is only a small part of this 'book', and calling it a book isn't really fair to it.  This is a piece of art; it feels more like you're walking through an emotionally powerful art exhibit.  The author, Todd Blubaugh, was a photographer by trade, so this all starts to make sense as you fall into his aesthetic.  Between the pages of powerful and technically complex photography you find short pieces of narrative text that pin down the corners of Todd's six month quest for meaning after his parent's unexpected death in a car accident.

If you've lost a parent in unexpected circumstances with things left unsaid, Todd's meditative ride around the continental U.S. will raise a lot of your own ghosts.  This was one of the reasons I savoured it so slowly.  After reading each emotional upper cut, you're immersed in several pages of photography of life on the road.  Working in black and white on a film camera, Todd's images tend toward startlingly frank personal portraits of the people that he meets on his travels.  Todd must be a particularly disarming fellow as he's able to catch people with almost animal like honesty - were I able to do this, I'd be much more interested in human portraiture.  As it is, it's a joy to see a master like this at work.

As you travel with Todd further into his trajectory away from the things that anchor most people to their lives (job, family), he surprises you with artifacts from his parent's lives.  At moments like this the book feels more like a scrapbook or family album, with news articles about his Dad's tour in Vietnam and his mother's paintings offering you further insight into the scope of his loss.  The letter from his Dad at the end of the book had me in tears.

Todd tells two entwined and complex stories in Too Far Gone.  His disassociation from the habitual, stationary life that most people live reaches a climax in a conversation with an old sailor that will leave you, along with Todd himself, staring into the abyss.  Free from the responsibilities most of us labour under, Todd is able to focus on his loss with such a startling clarity that it will shake you.

This book pressed a lot of buttons for me.  As a photographer I greatly enjoyed Todd's eye, even (and especially because?) it is so different from my own.  Todd's relationship with motorcycling (old Harleys and biker culture) is also about as different from mine as can be, yet the sense of brotherhood still felt strong because Todd is never once preachy or superior about his infatuation.  Instead, his honest love of motorbikes comes across loudly, and that is something we share.

As someone who lost a parent and experienced that same phone call out of the blue, Todd's experience is something that cuts me deep.  In coming to understand Todd's relationship with his dad I can't help but reflect on my own difficult and distant relationship with my father.  I lost the parent that I most identified with and have a challenging relationship with the other one, but Todd's parent's were still together and he lost both at once.  It's the things left unsaid that gnaw at you afterwards, and losing both parents together while they are still paragons in your life is something I can only imagine.

We all lose our parents eventually.  If you haven't yet, this book will give you an emotionally powerful idea of how it feels, and how someone has worked through the scars of that experience.  If they're already gone, your sympathy will create powerful echoes.

There are a few motorcycling themed books that plumb philosophical depths.  Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Shop Class As Soulcraft in particular have spoken intelligently and deeply about the meditative nature of motorcycling.  Too Far Gone is a multi-media, large format book that takes you to the same place through different mediums, but it does it while also offering an emotional intelligence that is hard to find anywhere else.  Immerse yourself in this book, you won't be disappointed.

What you need and nothing else.  After six months on the road Todd looks as homeless as he is, and has to make a decision...